Naming characters is always a hassle – I can’t get mine to settle properly in my head until they’ve been correctly bemonickered – and most writers have their favorite resources for the job. Baby name books and web sites are always good, especially for tales set in contemporary consensus reality, and if your interest is more historical, sites like the Social Security Administration’s Popular Baby Names page will let you search for popular American names by decade going back as far as the 1880s. I’m sure that other countries have similar resources; the SSA page just happens to be the one I know about firsthand.
If you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, though, you’ve got problems. Good science-fictional names, if you’re going to put some thought into them, are part of the worldbuilding: You have to make some complex calculations about the probable ethnic makeup of your future society, for example, and about possible changes in naming styles (the all-whitebread science-fictional future is, if not yet completely dead, definitely moribund, and a good thing, too; and while it’s not likely that we’re ever going to see a resurgence of multi-word Puritan-style virtue names of the Praise-God Barebones variety, there’s always the off-chance that some future society may produce dimpled tots named Respect-for-the-Rights-of-Others Herrera or Earth-is-not-the-Only-Planet Jones.)
But if you’re writing fantasy, at least of the pseudo-western-medieval variety, there’s at least one good cheap trick out there: Grab a copy of Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, or Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, and steal from there. Go right past all the too-familiar major characters, and head for the ranks of (sometimes literal) spear-carriers, of which there are a good plenty. This will give you lots of names which look vaguely western-medieval without belonging to any specific name-hoard, and which can usually be sounded out and pronounced by the average reader.
2 thoughts on “A Handy Trick”
Great advice. I use the SSA website for contemporary names, and now I know where to go for the other stuff. I am a total pantser, except when it comes to those character monikers.
Unreadable names is one of the reasons why I gave up reading SF and Fantasy. Now and then a stray spore from that mold will germinate in other genres, too. Just like when writers make characters spit Scottish brogue, it’s usually a cover-closer.